Bearded Eggheads Talk about Virtual Journalism and Stuff

by Alphaville Herald on 08/02/07 at 9:57 am

Henry Jenkins just posted part one of a two-part interview with our own Nutty Professor — Peter Ludlow. In it Ludlow has some not very nice things to say about the Avastar, and some marginally interesting things to say about civic responsibility and virtual journalism, and also where the Herald fits in the magic circle (“on the circumference” it turns out), but what might be discussion-worthy is this:

The more interesting question is why people keep repeating ““only a game”” so much. If you google ““only a game”” and “Second Life” together, you get nearly 12,000 hits. It is like a mantra that people keep repeating to keep some thought or idea at bay – and I think the dangerous idea that Second Life shoves in your face every day is this: our wealth is virtual, our property is transient, and our social lives are mediated by technology, nomadic, and often fleeting. I think that when people keep saying “it’’s only a game” they are really saying “the rest of my world isn’’t like this: my wealth is tangible and permanent, my friendships are unmediated and also permanent.” Saying “it’’s only a game” is like saying “this isn’’t how things really are, this is just a bad dream.” People need to pinch themselves, because this ain’’t no dream. This is reality; deal with it.

more quotes below the fold:

On the Avastar:

If you think about it, their project is somewhat reactionary. They had an opportunity to come to this strange and fantastic new place where all the rules can be rewritten, and the only thing they could think of doing was coming up with a product that mimics meat space newspapers as much as possible. Far from offering us a new way to think about news and entertainment and how it should be presented, they are effectively trying to make a last stand for static push media by using PDF instead of a blog or some sort of social software.

From the outside, I’’m sure they look all bleeding edgy (“oh look, a newspaper in a virtual world!”) but from inside they look reactionary in concept, and clumsy in execution.

On the Herald and the magic circle:

I don’’t think we struggle with whether we are in or out of the magic circle so much as we intentionally play at the circumference. Sometimes, when I think we are getting too serious, I will post a silly story, and when we are starting to get too silly I will put together a serious interview or offer a polished essay or piece of serious journalism. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable; they want to know if we are serious journalists or just playing at being journalists. But the answer is we don’’t respect the distinction and we are constantly trying to flout it.

Playing (sometimes even being) seedy tabloid journalists has helped us to learn the role that tabloid journalism plays in the media ecology of Second Life and the internet more broadly. I’’m fascinated by this topic. If you think of media as a kind of eco-system them you see that tabloid journalism plays an important role – churning up stuff that publications with bigger budgets and more time can sift through and investigate.

What is frightening, however, is seeing the number of so-called serious media outlets that pick up our stories (and other blog flotsam) and just reprint them as though it was the word of Gopod. More frightening than that, however, has been the many instances we have seen where major news organizations research their own stories and end up with great big piles of steaming crap. So I am in this strange position of thinking both that (i) people should not be reprinting our stuff without doing their Serious Journalism thing with it and (ii) the content we generate is on the whole more reliable and informative than what they come up with when they do that Serious Journalism thing.

11 Responses to “Bearded Eggheads Talk about Virtual Journalism and Stuff”

  1. Onder Skall

    Feb 8th, 2007

    Right away I’m noticing a factual omission: if you Google “Second Life” and “not a game” together, you get 46,900 hits. To me, the issue is not that people are underestimating SL, but that they are underestimating the importance and impact of gaming.

    I’ll refrain from ranting on the subject of Second-Life-as-game as an exploration of that issue is already underway at

    One last point: I agree about the Avastar. M2 does the same thing. Big newspaper-style layouts – they’re really hard to read on a computer screen. Having said that, it’s NOT their FAULT. Second Life doesn’t support html in any easy-to-use way, so they’ve resorted to emulating a physical media to organize. There is no other known standard for static type with pictures. Remember – by comparison, notecards suck.

    I’m working on a “Datapad” for the release of the in-world Second Life Games Guide. When that comes out you can judge for yourself if it’s any better than a PDF newspaper-style layout, but my hope is that it’s going to be more useful.

  2. MenuBar Memorial

    Feb 8th, 2007

    When you guys REALLY want to talk journalism – let me know.

    Don’t avoid the subject by calling virtual newspapers last century remnants and “hard to read on a computer screen” – is a blog-style line 8 inches across your blog easier to read than nice clean columns? no.

    I’m afraid you’re blinded by the flashing gifs and pretty blog ads that nobody clicks on.

    Like I said – when you’re ready to talk REAL journalism – the down and dirty, get your fingernails under their skin and wedgie their ass up over their heads journalism, look me up. I’m usually busy pulling the wings off of fairy ad-salesmen who don’t sell their quota and watching them squirm on the floor of the unemployment office, but always happy to talk newspaper. If you think you can HANDLE it.

  3. Ordinal Malaprop

    Feb 8th, 2007

    It might not be the case that there is a good alternative within SL to having texture-based magazines, but outside of SL, there really is no excuse.

    Every single person that I have ever spoken to on the subject has agreed that the RL-related, PDF format used by the MM and the Avastar puts them off reading it – from web professionals to your average Joe Avatar. The former want an RSS feed and proper XML before they’ll even bother, the latter want something where they can just scroll down a page and read stuff, just like the sites of all of the RL papers.

  4. Petey

    Feb 8th, 2007

    “I should also add that over time people do come to understand that we are not attacking the community, and some of the Herald”s harshest critics have gone on to be good friends and contributors to the Herald. ”

    I’m proof positive of this assertion. I might not agree with some or most of what the Herald writes, but at least it gives the SL community a better treatment than the MSM, which just reprints press releases. And when Uri and I disagree, he doesn’t threaten me with lawsuits or moral decreptitude.

    “The “”only a game”" meme is of course not merely leveled at the Herald, but at anyone who participates in online worlds (and participatory culture more broadly”

    I don’t argue against participatory culture. As an active forums member on several different website (and regular commenter on the Herald), that would be quite hypocritical.

    The thing I argue against is treating a role playing experience like real life, or in letting your participation in a virtual world overwhelm your participation in the real one. I’m not against escapism, but when the place you escape to becomes your primary residence you’ve got a problem on your hands. I see that a lot in Second Life, hence my critique of it.

    A last comment on the MSM: for them, and for the vast majority of people who don’t really play SL or who stay away from the community, SL is a platform. A business tool. Whereas I think that, if you look at the stats of who is sticking around and what they’re doing, or if you just walk around SL, you realize that the main SL market is people who really really like their roleplaying. And to report on that, you need to immerse yourself in the sometimes painfully awkward world of Second Life. The MSM and businesspeople doesn’t have the time or the energy to do it, so that leaves people like Dan Terdiman or Sal Palmisano free to just speculate with thought experiments that ignore–and I can’t believe I’m going to use this phrase–the reality of this virtual world.

  5. Onder Skall

    Feb 9th, 2007

    MenuBar: “is a blog-style line 8 inches across your blog easier to read than nice clean columns? no.”

    - Appologies but I must disagree with your over-simplification of the issue here, your “whip-em-out-and-measure” banter notwithstanding. A blog or other webpage looks the way it does because, through the static window of a computer monitor, it’s the easiest format for scanning text. If it wasn’t, the standard would have developped differently. Now, if a computer screen was longer, plyable and could be held in your hands, a series of narrow columns would be better because instead of “scrolling” we could just move the paper up and fold what we didn’t want to read out of the way. That’s why newspapers look the way they do: it matches the medium.

    However, you are correct on one point: it’s not really a discussion about journalism. It’s a discussion on typography. I don’t think we’ll really resolve the issue until we’re ready to geek out on typographical conventions for awhile.

  6. MenuBar Memorial

    Feb 9th, 2007

    Haha “whip ‘em out and measure” – I like that, Onder!

    But, I must disagree with your assertion that “A blog or other webpage looks the way it does because, through the static window of a computer monitor, it’s the easiest format for scanning text.”

    No – the reason a blog or webpage looks like that is due to the limitations of HTML as a publishing medium. You *can* do columns and wraparound text, to make things more readable, as many well established RL newspapers do – but most people don’t have the abilities for such fancy web tricks. And even when they do, they are faced with the unlimited randomness of fonts, styles, etc that people use for viewing website or RSS information.

    Don’t try to assert that reading long lines across a page is easier – it’s not.

    A newspaper is not laid out in columns because it’s the trendy or stylish thing to do – it’s laid out that way because, as any publisher, typographer or printer will tell you, it is a time-tested and true, scientifically proven, visually appealing and easy to read method.

    If it wasn’t, then you would see as many different layouts as there are newspapers.

    Some trendy magazines (like WIRED for example) depart somewhat from the norm, and can be quite creative in their designs. But even WIRED defaults to the common column format in 90% of their readable content. If they ran articles across the entire width of their page in every story (like a website), you’d have to read with both hands (or at least a finger) to avoid losing what line you were reading as your eyes dart from the right side of the page to the left.

    On a somewhat different topic – I personally prefer prim based newspapers and magazines in Sl for several reasons. For one, it is a more substantial thing than a website that you will click through or PDF that will end up in the trash or lost in backups. A prim book is an actual object in SL – you can pick it up, put it on a table, turn the pages, allow a friend to read along with you, etc, etc, etc.

    My favorite thing to do is to leave these prim magazines open on a table for passerbys to leaf through – this helps promote the magazine to those who may have never heard of it, and perhaps introduces issues covered in the articles that some may not be well informed on.

    Blogs, websites and PDFs are disconnected from this world of SL. They are RL items that merely have SL content. I believe you, Ordinal, when you cite that most people you talk to “want rss or xml”, but the truth is, most people “want” a lot of stuff. People want flying cars in RL, but the fact is they’ll be smashing them into buildings, mountains and trees until RL would look like an abandoned, littered sim with no restrictions.

    There are reasons that A LOT of things are done in publishing that the average joe does not understand the logic behind. It’s not up to the average joe to dictate how we do things – we do it because it’s the best thing, the right thing, scientifically proven, time tested and true formulae developed and refined over the centuries to save you from eyestrain, misinterpretations and brain-drain.

    Sorry, but HTML, RSS, XML, etc., are just not as functional or readable as a magazine or newspaper presentation.

    Eleven and six eighths inches and I just had a cold shower and saw a picture of Zsa Zsa Gabor in a 2-piece bikini, in case you were wondering.

    /returns ruler to boss’ desk

  7. Ordinal Malaprop

    Feb 10th, 2007

    If you are talking solely about in-world publications I think that RL publication formats are a good starting position (it’s not something that I’ve done a lot of study on to be honest and would not claim to have strong opinions on) but my point was that these things are also downloaded outside of SL, and when they are, traditional print layouts are not suitable. This isn’t a novel idea surely, the idea that paper is not the same as screen. Blog and news site layouts have evolved towards the concept of a relatively narrow column of text with sidebars for further information not because it’s trendy but because that’s how people like to read. The absolute worst thing you can have on a site is a layout that requires people to scroll down and then right back to the top to read the continuation of that column – browsers are much slower to move than eyes. You can have things all over the place in print to a degree that is simply irritating on a site.

    It is also much easier to distribute information on a blog or other site than to do it within SL. I certainly have nothing against SL publications, I like the idea as it happens, but (a) if you have SL access you also (almost always) have web access, but the opposite is not the case and (b) there are all sorts of terrific tools which enable one to aggregate information from the web which simply don’t exist at the moment in SL.

    The best solution would seem to be some sort of simultaneous publishing system, presumably XML-based so that your SL Publisher Widget could turn it into a texture with magazine-style layout and your Blog Publisher Widget could turn it into a readable web page.

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